Damien Mander: From Spec Ops Soldier to Vegan Animal Defender

Updated: Apr 13, 2018

By Prof. Elizabeth Jordan, Science Writer

The following article is the first of our newest feature: SPN Spotlight. Each month, we will be focusing on an individual, organisation, animal, or species that we believe deserves recognition.

This month, we are focusing on Damien Mander.

An Anti-Poaching Crusader is Born

The world is a little better each day with Damien Mander and his Anti-Poaching Rangers battling illegal wildlife trafficking from the front lines.

Born just outside Melbourne, Australia, Mander trained as a navy clearance diver and special operations sniper for the Australian Royal Navy. He survived twelve grueling tours in Iraq, which proved to be a crucible from which rose a unique skill set that he would parlay into his life’s mission.

Looking for the next adventure, Damien traveled to the Zimbabwe bush in 2009 where he witnessed the heart-wrenching aftermath of a poached bull elephant.

The senselessness and cruelty of the act profoundly impacted him. Unexpectedly, he found his calling; passionately defending animals and fighting the injustice of the illegal wildlife trade.

The first step in his life’s work was to liquidate his assets and use that money to create the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF). IAPF uses military solutions and drone technology to fight illegal wildlife trafficking.

The organization upholds high standards for its Rangers who use their unique skills for ground missions and high-level investigations. Illegal animal trafficking has become surprisingly sophisticated. To stay ahead of it, Rangers employ the same principles and techniques used in highly-skilled military operations. Mander considers his Anti-Poaching Rangers to be the ‘special operations soldiers’ of conservation.

These Anti-Poaching Rangers are as active as they are well-trained. They now protect over six million acres of land, with particular success in Kruger National Park. For the first time in over ten years, rhino poaching has decreased in the area.

Mander now works with Stop Poaching Now!, spearheading the LEADRanger Project in Kenya. The LEAD project brings in expert ‘skill coaches’ who mentor and train rangers in several areas, including law-enforcement, anti-poaching operations, and leadership. They collaborate between regions to create a unified network to battle the illegal wildlife trade. To date, LEADRangers support twenty protected areas in four countries.


The process of recruiting rangers is not as simple as it might appear. IAPF has a rigorous vetting process to weed out any prospects who may be susceptible to outside pressures and corruption.

In this pursuit, Mander says he has never come across a female poacher and that females appear less susceptible to external pressures and coercion. The forward-thinking IAPF now trains female rangers called Akashinga or ‘brave ones.’ Many Akashinga rise from lives of poverty, human trafficking, and abusive relationships to join the ranks of these elite protectors.

The female rangers have not only proved to be hard-working and highly effective but, according to Mander, also tend to produce better results than their male counterparts when de-escalating potential conflicts. Their success extends to their society as the wages these women earn go back into their families, spreading the wealth to their rural African communities. These women's community-based approach to conservation has lasting effects and changes their local environments for the better.

IAPF continues to work extensively with male rangers and has tremendous respect for all those who seek to protect these animals. Mander says he feels fortunate to have twice as many qualified rangers to choose from.


A passionate animal advocate and anti-poaching crusader, Mander believes that conservationists should take the reins to guarantee the protection of animals on all fronts, regardless of where they come from or how they relate to humans. In pursuit of this commitment, he believes conservationists are uniquely positioned to serve as the vanguards of the plant-based movement and that veganism goes hand-in-hand with conservation. Mander firmly believes that the welfare of our planet’s animals goes far beyond the single-issue of the poaching crisis.

His anti-poaching activism and vegan approach to animal welfare have brought him international recognition. No matter if he speaks at TEDx Sydney event or the upcoming James Cameron documentary Game Changers, Mander continues to support his belief that protecting animals is not an insurmountable task. Whether by helping to end the abuses of factory farming or joining in the fight against poaching, individuals can change the future of these animals and our world.

As Damien and SPN work towards this future, we hope you’ll join us on the journey.


Recent Posts

See All